San Blas, Panama


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San Blas Islands, Panama (1st of July to 10th of August, 2004)

The passage Curaçao to Porvenir, San Blas

Just a few days after having arrived in Curaçao, we all of a sudden had a good weather window to sail to Panama. We already wanted to go to Panama and Costa Rica for a long time. We had to pick our weather window very carefully, because the passage runs along the northern coast of Colombia. And many yachts, which have completed a round-the-world trip, say they encountered the worst seas north of Colombia. This is why at first I wanted to fly there, but as Marcel could not find anybody to sail with him, I decided to sail along with him. The weather forecast said 5 Beaufort, but along the Colombian coast it was blowing harder at 6 to 7 Beaufort. The waves were also higher than expected, due to currents. Sometimes we had a favourable current of 2.5 knots and sometimes none. I was feeling uneasy about the weather at times. Marcel never was. The first night he was seasick though and I felt queasy for the first few days. The last 24 hours the wind dropped to nil. Strange, how those high seas and winds dissolved into nothing as we went further south. We had to motor the last night and go very slow to arrive at dawn, so that we would be able to see the reefs. We arrived in the San Blas Islands on July the 5th after 5 days and nights at sea. Landfall was at Porvenir, a tiny, tropical island with an airstrip, a hotel, and a customs and immigration office.

The islands

The area of the San Blas Islands is wonderful to explore. The 365 idyllic islands of the island chain are not far from each other, and belong to the nation of Kuna Yala, inhabited and governed by Kuna Indians. Most of these beautiful, tropical islands are uninhabited, surrounded by coral reefs, and have palm-lined white beaches. We especially liked the island just west of Kuanidup, full of coconut bearing palm trees and a pristine, white sand beach.

Some islands are inhabited and some have traditional Kuna villages on them with little cane houses with thatched roofs made of palm fronds, spilling over the edges of the island. One can hardly buy anything on the islands, although some have small “tiendas” or shops. Some islands also have schools and a basketball court. Only a few modernized islands have concrete houses, telephones, a church and a bank. There are no cash machines.

We were truly overwhelmed by this beautiful paradise and it’s nature. It was very peaceful and quiet, maybe because of the low (wet) season. Only an occasional "ulu", or dugout canoe, would visit us at the anchorages, with Kuna Indians selling “molas”, and fruit or crab and lobster. Mangoes and pineapples are abundant this time of year. Some Kunas just came by for a chat. They would often ask if we had old “revistas” or magazines, which they needed for school.

The people

The Kuna Indians are fascinating people. The women make "molas". These are rectangular pieces of fabric with intricate embroidery, application and fine needlework in colourful designs, which are used to decorate the front and back of the blouses the women wear. The decorative “mola” blouse apparently originated from body painting in the early days. The designs are usually depicting local animals, like parrots, toucans, humming birds, fish, turtles and flowers. The more layers of fabric a “mola” has, the better the quality, and the stitching should be invisible. By selling “molas”, the women take care of the major part of their income. They are keen sales people. The men work the land, for which they sail to the mainland, build huts and “ulus”, and catch fish, crab and lobster and sell these. In some villages they also get water in jugs from nearby rivers on the mainland.

The women are nicely dressed with the “mola” blouse, a sarong, which is usually dark blue with yellow print, and a red headscarf with yellow print. They cover their arms and legs with bracelets, made of small beads, and they wear golden jewellery around their necks and in their ears. Most of them wear golden nose rings and a tattooed line on their noses. Girls wear their hair long, and married women have a short haircut. They walk barefoot or on plastic high heels. On some islands we saw some transvestites, who were also nicely dressed, with jewellery and a line on their nose.

It is nice to talk to the people. Children are always very enthusiastic and talkative. Some people speak Spanish, but in remote areas they only speak Kuna.

The Kunas are very adept at sailing their "ulus" around. Most of them propel their “ulus” using paddles, bargepoles or sails. One of the sails we saw was made from what seemed an old curtain with a beautiful floral design. They steer the “ulu” using a paddle. Only a few “ulus” use outboard motors, and these are usually for public transport. Most “ulus” are not quite watertight, so that they have to bail a lot. The “ulu” is the main means of transportation of the Kuna Indians. To make an “ulu”, a Kuna man finds a big hardwood tree in the jungle of the mainland. There he will chop the tree and roughly dig out the canoe into it’s preliminary shape, and then float it down a river and to his home, where he finishes it.

The weather

There's hardly any wind in the rainy season. We have only used our sails once during our stay in the San Blas area. This is due to the ”doldrums” or ITZC (inter tropical convergence zone), an area of no wind with numerous thunderstorms, which lie north of the equator in summer and south of the equator in winter. They are caused by the NE and SE trade winds coming together in the ITCZ.

It can get very hot and sticky to cool off again by pouring rain and thunder and lightning. One evening in the West Lemon Cays we were eaten by lots of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, tiny biting flies, and soon after that we had thunder and lightning just over our heads for about two hours. That was a bit scary, but all went well. It was raining so much that I had a shower in the rain and a bath the next morning in our dinghy, which was filled to the rim with rainwater.

The village on Mormake Tupu

One of the highlights of our stay in the San Blas area was our visit to two picturesque, traditional villages. Before wandering around in any village or going up any river, you have to get permission from the “Sahila” or chief from the village.

One of the islands we visited was Mormake Tupu, a little island with a village on it. It was a fantastic experience. These people know how to live in nature. It still is so pure and unspoiled. On our visit, Ponciano, whom we had met at Kuanidup before, welcomed us, and escorted us to the “Congreso”, the largest hut on the island, to see the “Sahila”. The “Congreso” is also the place, where the villagers meet on some evenings to discuss community matters, and where “fiestas” are held. We talked to the “Sahila” in Spanish, which Ponciano translated into Kuna, and paid our visitor’s fee.

Now we could walk around the village, escorted by Ponciano. In some places the “streets”, running between the huts and banana or palm trees are only a meter wide. We saw them building some new huts with cane and freshly cut palm fronds.

At first the women on the island only allowed me to take pictures of them for a dollar, but the children were eager to have their picture taken. Each time I showed them how a picture turned out on the little screen of our digital camera, and pretty soon we were surrounded by lots of children. They followed us everywhere. Having no children myself, it was as if all of a sudden I had lots of children. One of the little boys wanted to hold my hand while we walked around through the village. I felt deeply moved.

They showed us a coconut press, which the children used as a seesaw. Hearing the noise from the children, also the adults came out of their huts to see what was happening. Then I got an idea, to make prints of the photographs and give them to the people. And when I told them this, everybody wanted to have their picture taken. They led us through their homes into their “back yards” on the waterfront to take photos of them posing in an “ulu”. We took family portraits of Ponciano and his family and many others, also women in "ulus" and in front of their huts. Ponciano’s father-in-law even put on his white shirt, tie and hat for the occasion, and Ponciano’s wife urged me to dress in Kuna traditional dress and pose for a photograph as well. We had a lot of fun.

In the back yards we could see their washrooms, and “ulus” sticking out over the water. Their huts are very dark and quite hot. There’s usually a wooden board on stilts off the ground, serving as a bed. Little wooden stools and hammocks serve as chairs. They often keep dogs and parrots as pets. One of the boys even had a small sea turtle as a pet. It was crawling in the sand. We convinced them to put the turtle in water. He did that, but unfortunately, he would not set him free.

A whole group of children escorted us, when we went to buy some “muda” or Kuna bread fresh from the oven, and back to the dock. Their bread is delicious when it is still warm. Back on the boat we printed the photos and gave them the next day to Ponciano to distribute them to the people.

Monkeys at Rio Esadi

The next day we rowed our dinghy up the Rio Esadi into the mainland. There was a muddy path leading from farmland, through the rainforest up the hills. We went past their coconut and banana plantations. They also grow yucca, corn and pineapple. In the forest we saw all kinds of tropical flowers, and big, bright blue butterflies (“blue morpho”), and we heard all kinds of birds. Higher up the hill we thought we heard birds, but when we took a closer look, we saw that the noise had come from some playful “Tamarin” monkeys. They were very curious, staring at us with their tiny black faces, but they did not quite dare to come too close. “Tamarins” are pretty with black faces, hands, feet and furry tails and white woolly furs covering their bodies and heads like little hoods. From the hills we had a nice view over the bay and the islands.

Other rivers

We explored several rivers in Kuna Yala, and each river is very different. In Japan they say life is like a river, you never know what comes around the bend. The rivers here are winding through farmland and jungle. Rivers are very important for the Kuna Indians. It is their source of drinking water. In the old days and even still today on Tupsuit Dumat and Pippi, the Kuna Indians paddle or push their “ulus” with bargepoles up the stream of Rio Torti two or three times a week, to fill their jugs with water, and paddle back to the village. Nowadays in most places a water pipe runs from the river to nearby islands. The Kunas have their farmland along the river, and they bury their dead in cemeteries on pieces of land along the rivers.

The Rio Mandinga is a wide river, which flows very fast, and has minor rapids in places. We had to use full throttle to get upstream. We met several Kuna Indians, paddling downstream, their “ulu” laden with all kinds of fruit, and sometimes, entire families accompanied the men. One of the women was doing her fine needlework on a “mola”, while the men were steering their “ulu” through the rapids. Rafting downstream we saw “ulus” going upstream, which was really hard work for the men, pushing the boat upstream, against the current, with bargepoles. Two guys passing asked us what time it was. They still had to go three hours to go to get to their hut in the mountains.

Coco Bandero Cays

In Coco Bandero Cays I wrote to a friend: “Now we are at anchor at the East Coco Bandero Cays, and enjoying paradise here. The translucent waters are emerald green. I did yoga and danced on the beach on an island covered with coconut palms close to our boat. Yesterday an “ulu” came by and we bought fresh king crab, cucumber and coconut. So I guess that's what we'll eat today. We are living day by day, as the Kunas do.” On the picturesque island of Esnatupile there is a freshwater well. Our view on from the anchorage between two little islands inspired me to make another painting.

Holandes Cays

On a bright day we decided to go to the East Holandes Cays. This group of beautiful islands has crystal clear waters, because it is furthest away from the mainland, where the water can be murky due to the sediment influx from the rivers, especially in the rainy season. We went to an anchorage called the “swimming pool”, where the beautiful clear waters depending on the depth have shades of blue, turquoise, and green. The coral reefs are clearly visible with their shades of brown. We had such a good time, that we spent a long time here.

Almost every day we went snorkelling, often with our friends from “Chewbacca” and “Freya”. Often we saw spotted eagle rays gliding gracefully through the water beneath us. Occasionally we also saw them jumping out of the water, and make summersaults, before splashing back into the water, while cruising. One day we made a fantastic snorkelling trip. We swam along a coral wall. Marcel was behind me trying to see if he could move a huge log on the reef. I could hear the noise behind me. Possibly attracted by the sound waves, all of a sudden out of the deep, there he was: I looked straight into the eyes of a huge nurse shark of about two meters long! He was swimming towards me. In hindsight I should have probably held still, but although I had heard they are harmless, unless provoked, I was so startled that I backed away from him. I think the shark was just as startled as I was, because he turned around and swam away. I rushed to tell Marcel, so that he could also catch a glimpse of him before he disappeared back into the abyss. It was awesome and fantastic at the same time.

We also went to a spot called “Japanese Gardens”, a shallow underwater park, full of different kinds of soft and hard corals, so beautiful that it looked like carefully landscaped gardens under water. There were a lot of lobsters hiding in small nooks and crannies. Another time I found a conch shell. It was actually big enough to eat. You are allowed to catch adult ones with a full-grown shell, but I could not do it in the end. I took a picture of it instead, so that I could paint it, and put it back on the sea bottom. That same afternoon it went for a “walk” and disappeared.

This is also where I celebrated my birthday with home-baked birthday cakes. We had a good time with the other cruisers on Potluck Island, so called because each Monday the cruisers would get together on the island. Everybody brings drinks and snacks to share, have a chat, swap books, CD’s and videos. At dusk they make a campfire to burn fallen branches, driftwood and their trash. One cruising couple actually has come here for five years, and stays anchored at the “swimming pool” almost permanently. Reggie rakes the island and keeps it nice and clean. On the island we also painted together, played games and did yoga. This island also has a water well, and one day we noticed a boa constrictor in the well. We think the Kunas put it there to free the island from rats.

The islands are mostly uninhabited, but a few families live on Banedup. We went there one day to trade “molas” for cloths, shampoo, and other cosmetics like make-up. Sometimes we see Kuna women walking around with unnaturally red cheeks. They gave us coconuts and plantains as a gift. There are no shops on these islands. The nearest “supermarket”, which only sells the bare minimum, is half a day trip away on Nargana. So everybody in the “swimming pool” would slowly run out of supplies. One morning it felt like Christmas, when a boat came over from Nargana to sell us some groceries, fresh vegetables and fruit.

We also anchored at Miriadiadup in the West Holandes Cays. Marcel had to explore the anchorage snorkelling, to make sure we would swing free from all the surrounding corals. There was a spot just big enough for Alegría. The snorkelling was superb, as there were soft coral “gardens” just behind our boat. I rowed the dinghy over to Morodup, where three children were staying a few weeks with their grandparents, who came from the island of El Tigre. Morodup is a tiny island with two huts and a few palm trees, surrounded by clear blue waters.

Tupsuit Dumat and Tupsuit Pippi

Tupsuit Dumat and Tupsuit Pippi are two little islands in the far western corner of the Golfo de San Blas. “Dumat” means big and “pippi” means small. The villages on the islands here are also very traditional. On Tupsuit Dumat we did another photo session. Here we were welcomed and escorted by Atilliano, a ten year old boy. He showed us where to find the “Sahila”, his friends, Igua and Santiago, his school and the basketball court. We heard music coming from some of the huts. Someone was singing and somebody else played the maracas.

The people from the village showed us an “ulu” in the make, and a press for “caña” or cane juice, used to make chicha, an alcoholic beverage, which the Kunas drink at their “fiestas”.

In this area we saw many albinos, which is probably due to intermarriage. The Kunas call them “moonchildren”, and they are considered to be very special and seen as born leaders. Perhaps this is why they appear not as relaxed as the other Kunas.

While we were at anchor close to Tupsuit Dumat, children, sometimes accompanied by their parents, would come to our boat at 5 pm for a chat. Two giggling girls came, and a few little boys. Attiliano actually came on board. Santiago came and brought us some plantains as a present. His brother Igua told us about their school system. Up to the age of 12 the children of the island as well as neighbouring islands come in two consecutive groups to the school on Tupsuit Dumat, where they attend primary school for four hours daily. At the age of 12 they have to go to Carti, an island some six miles away, by motorized “ulu” to go to secondary school. Igua told us that he wanted to become a teacher.

One time a woman and her children came on board to sell “molas”. She was so eager to “read” and look through anything that was written, that she grabbed Marcel’s book about boat maintenance and “studied” it for quite a while.

Afterword

We like San Blas a lot for it’s beauty, it’s serenity, it’s nature, and it’s people. The islands are beautiful. On some islands it seems that the sea is taking over the islands bit by bit due to sea level rise. The soil around the roots of palm trees on the edges of the islands is slowly washed away, and the palm trees topple over and drop into the sea. On some islands the Kuna Indians are bringing sand in “ulus” to cover wet areas to prevent mosquitoes breeding in the fresh water puddles and thus fight malaria and dengue.

The Kuna Indians are still adhering to their traditions in remote areas. In other places Western civilisation is creeping in. The rooftops of Nargana are decorated with antennas, and out of huts and concrete houses, you can hear the sound of a “telenovela” or television soap. Adults and children are hanging in front of the TV with faces marked by boredom. Outboard motors are used more often and airplanes are flying on and off with lobster and crab. The villagers don’t understand the concept of conservation. Often they kill also the tiny lobsters before they can ever reproduce. This was not a problem, when the lobsters were only for their own consumption. But now that they are selling lobster tails by ice chests full of them to the lobster planes, to be carried and sold to fancy restaurants, it leaves one to wonder, how long can this last?

How long will it take before this authentic place changes completely over? Aren't we lucky to still be able to experience it? Let’s hope it will stay like this.